In January 69 Otho led a successful coup to overthrow the emperor Galba. Upon advancing to the throne, he hoped to conciliate his adversaries and restore political stability to the Empire. These ambitions were never to be realized. Instead, our sources portray a leader never fully able to win political confidence at Rome or to overcome military anarchy abroad. As a result, he was defeated in battle by the forces of Vitellius, his successor, and took his own life at the conclusion of the conflict. His principate lasted only eight weeks.[]
Early Life and Career
Marcus Salvius Otho was born at Ferentium on 28 April 32 A. D. His grandfather, also named Marcus Salvius Otho, was a senator who did not advance beyond the rank of praetor. Lucius Otho, his father, was consul in 33 and a trusted administrator under the emperors Tiberius, Gaius and Claudius. His mother, Albia Terentia, was likely to have been nobly born as well. The cognomen “Otho” was Etruscan in origin, and the fact that it can be traced to three successive generations of this family perhaps reflects a desire to maintain a part of the Etruscan tradition that formed the family’s background.[]
Otho is recorded as being extravagant and wild as a youth – a favorite pastime involved roving about at night to snare drunkards in a blanket. Such behavior earned floggings from his father, whose frequent absences from home on imperial business suggest little in the way of a stabilizing parental influence in Otho’s formative years. These traits apparently persisted: Suetonius records that Otho and Nero became close friends because of the similarity of their characters; and Plutarch relates that the young man was so extravagant that he sometimes chided Nero about his meanness, and even outdid the emperor in reckless spending.[]
Most intriguing in this context is Otho’s involvement with Nero’s mistress, Poppaea Sabina, the greatest beauty of her day.[] A relationship between the two is widely cited in the ancient sources, but the story differs in essential details from one account to the next. As a result, it is impossible to establish who seduced whom, whether Otho ever married Poppaea, and whether his posting to Lusitania by Nero should be understood as a “banishment” for his part in this affair. About the only reliable detail to emerge is that Otho did indeed become governor of Lusitania in 59, and that he assumed the post as a quaestor, a rank below that of praetor or consul, the minimum usually required for the office.[] From here he would launch his initial thrust towards the imperial throne.
Overthrow of Galba
Nero’s suicide in June 68 marked the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and opened up the principate to the prerogatives of the military beyond Rome. First to emerge was Servius Sulpicius Galba, governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, who had been encouraged to revolt by the praetorians and especially by Nymphidius Sabinus, the corrupt and scheming praetorian prefect at Rome. By this time Otho had been in Spain for close to ten years. His record seems to have been a good one, marked by capable administration and an unwillingness to enrich himself at the expense of the province. At the same time, perhaps seeing this as his best chance to improve his own circumstances, he supported the insurrection as vigorously as possible, even sending Galba all of his gold and his best table servants.[] At the same time, he made it a point to win the favor of every soldier he came in contact with, most notably the members of the praetorian guard who had come to Spain to accompany Galba to Rome. Galba set out from Spain in July, formally assuming the emperorship shortly thereafter. Otho accompanied him on the journey.
Galba had been in Rome little more than two months when on 1 January 69 the troops in Upper Germany refused to declare allegiance to him and instead followed the men stationed in Lower Germany in proclaiming their commander, Aulus Vitellius, as the new ruler. To show that he was still in charge Galba adopted his own successor, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi Licinianus, an aristocrat completely without administrative or military experience. The choice meant little to the remote armies, the praetorians or the senate and particularly angered Otho, who had hoped to succeed Galba.[] Otho quickly organized a conspiracy among the praetorians with promise of a material reward, and on 15 January 69 they declared him emperor and publicly killed Galba; Piso, dragged from hiding in the temple of Vesta, was also butchered. On that same evening a powerless senate awarded Otho the imperial titles.
Otho’s Principate in Rome
It is not possible to reconstruct a detailed chronology of Otho’s brief eight and a half weeks as princeps in Rome (15 January-15 March). Even so, Galba’s quick demise had surely impressed upon Otho the need to conciliate various groups. As a result, he continued his indulgence of the praetorian guard but he also tried to win over the senate by following a strict constitutionalist line and by generally keeping the designations for the consulship made by Nero and Galba. In the provinces, despite limited evidence, there are some indications that he tried to compensate for Galba’s stinginess by being more generous with grants of citizenship. In short, Otho was eager not to offend anyone.[]
Problems remained, however. The praetorians had to be continually placated and they were always suspicious of the senate. On the other hand, the senate itself, along with the people, remained deeply disturbed at the manner of Otho’s coming to power and his willingness to be associated with Nero.[] These suspicions and fears were most evident in the praetorian outbreak at Rome. Briefly, Otho had decided to move from Ostia to Rome a cohort of Roman citizens in order to replace some of Rome’s garrison, much of which was to be utilized for the showdown with Vitellius. He ordered that weapons be moved from the praetorian camp in Rome by ship to Ostia at night so that the garrison replacements would be properly armed and made to look as soldierly as possible when they marched into the city. Thinking that a senatorial counter-coup against Otho was underway, the praetorians stormed the imperial palace to confirm the emperor’s safety, with the result that they terrified Otho and his senatorial dinner guests. Although the praetorians’ fears were eventually calmed and they were given a substantial cash payment, the incident dramatically underscored the unease at Rome in the early months of 69.[]
Otho’s Offensive against Vitellius
Meanwhile, in the Rhineland, preparations for a march on Rome by the military legions that had declared for Vitellius were far advanced. Hampered by poor intelligence gathering in Gaul and Germany and having failed to negotiate a settlement with Vitellius in early 69, Otho finally summoned to Italy his forces for a counterattack against the invading Vitellian army. His support consisted of the four legions of Pannonia and Dalmatia, the three legions of Moesia and his own imperial retinue of about 9,000. Vitellius’ own troops numbered some 30,000, while those of his two marshals, Aulus Caecina Alienus and Fabius Valens, were between 15,000 and 20,000 each.[]
Otho’s strategy was to make a quick diversionary strike in order to allow time for his own forces to assemble in Italy before engaging the enemy. The strategy worked, as the diversionary army, comprised of urban cohorts, praetorians and marines all from Rome or nearby, was successful in Narbonese Gaul in latter March. An advance guard sent to hold the line on the Po River until the Danubian legions arrived also enjoyed initial success. Otho himself arrived at Bedriacum in northern Italy about 10 April for a strategy session with his commanders. The main concern was that the Vitellians were building a bridge across the Po in order to drive southward towards the Apennines and eventually to Rome. Otho decided to counter by ordering a substantial part of his main force to advance from Bedriacum and establish a new base close enough to the new Vitellian bridge to interrupt its completion. While en route, the Othonian forces, strung out along the via Postumia amid baggage and supply trains, were attacked by Caecina and Valens near Cremona on 14 April. The clash, know as the Battle of Bedriacum, resulted in the defeat of the Othonian forces, their retreat cut off by the river behind them. Otho himself, meanwhile, was not present, but had gone to Brixellum with a considerable force of infantry and cavalry in order to impede any Vitellian units that had managed to cross the Po.
The plan had backfired. Otho’s strategy of obtaining victory while avoiding any major battles had proven too risky. Realizing perhaps that a new round of fighting would have involved not only a significant re-grouping of his existing troops but also a potentially bloody civil war at Rome, if Vitellius’ troops reached the capital, Otho decided that enough blood had been shed.[] Two weeks shy of his thirty-seventh birthday, on 16 April 69, he took his own life.[]
To be sure, Otho remains an enigma – part profligate Neronian wastrel and part conscientious military commander willing to give his life for the good of the state. Our sources are at a loss to explain the paradox. Perhaps, like Petronius, he saw it was safer to appear a profligate in Nero’s court? In the final analysis, Otho proved to be an organized and efficient military commander, who appealed more to the soldier than to the civilian. He also seems to have been a capable governor, with administrative talents that recalled those of his father. Nevertheless, his violent overthrow of Galba, the lingering doubts that it raised about his character, and his unsuccessful offensive against Vitellius are all vivid reminders of the turbulence that plagued the Roman world between the reigns of Nero and Vespasian. Regrettably, the scenario would play itself out one more time before peace and stability returned to the empire.
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[] The main ancient sources for the life of Otho are: Tac. Hist. 1.50-2.49; Suet. Otho; Plut. Otho; Cassius Dio 64.10-15. In addition, there were major works for this period by Cluvius Rufus, Fabius Rusticus and Pliny the Elder, but they have not survived. For an important discussion, see G. B. Townsend, “Cluvius Rufus in the Histories of Tacitus,” AJPhil 85 (1964): 337-377.
[] Poppaea possessed charm, beauty, fame and wit (Ann. 13.45.2) and was eventually married to Nero, for whom she bore a daughter, Claudia Augusta (PIR2 C 1061); she was pregnant again when Nero reportedly kicked her to death(Ann. 16.6.1; Suet. Ner. 35.3). There are five extant accounts of the Nero-Otho-Poppaea love triangle: Plut. Galba 19.2-20.2; Suet. Otho 3.1-2; Tacitus’ two versions: Hist. 1.13.3-4; Ann. 13.45-46; and Dio 61.11.2-4. For a useful discussion of this episode and of all the problems of source criticism contained therein, see Charles L. Murison, Galba, Otho and Vitellius: Careers and Controversies (Hildesheim, 1993), 75-80.
[] On Otho’s indulgence towards the praetorians, see Tac. Hist. 1.46.1; on his shameless flattery of them, see Tac. Hist. 1.36, 45-46, 80-85; Plut. Otho 1.2; 3.11-13. On his relationship with the senate, especially appointments to the consulship, see Tac. Hist. 1.77.2 and G. B. Townsend, “Cluvius Rufus in the Histories of Tacitus,” AJP 83 (1962), 113-124. On Otho’s interactions with the provinces, see Tac. Hist. 1.78.1, where the emperor tries to compensate for Galba’s shortcomings in Spain and Gaul. Significant in this regard was that Galba was also able to maintain the loyalty of the legions in Pannonia, Dalmatia and Moesia.
[] On the praetorians’ suspicions of the senate, see Tac. Hist. 1.80.2, 82.1; cf. Plut. Otho 3.3-10; on senatorial and popular horror at Otho’s manner of coming to power, see Tac. Hist. 1.50.1. Otho also appropriated funds to finish Nero’s Golden House, the Domus Aurea; see Suet. Otho 7.1. For a fuller description of the property, see Tac. Ann. 15.42-43; Suet. Nero 31.
[] This decision was made despite the fact that Otho seemed to have had an adequate number of troops for a second engagement and that his forces were not demoralized by the defeat. See Suet. Otho 9.3.